Being Called to Adopt an Older Child
by Chandres Pickett and Phyllis Stephenson
As a society, we typically think of family and children with a vision of newborn babies, soft clothing, and new beginnings. This new journey fills us with hope and wonder for the future of our children. We dream of children experiencing milestones and “firsts” throughout their lives; we see them on their first day of school, graduating, and launching their lives as young adults. We see our child as an opportunity to share part of who we are with our family, friends, and communities that we love. The gift of a newborn baby is an amazing experience with miraculous newness. However, this vision does not have to be limited to just newborns. The gift of adopting an older child brings other amazing experiences with a new, already-defined person who has their own unique personality, interests and experiences.
The story of our forever family has brought us six cherished children, three who were adopted at the ages of 6, 10, and 15. My family’s story is of blessings, joys, and challenges resulting in an incredible circle of love that we proudly call family.
Chandres and Scott’s Story
Five years ago, my husband and I began one of the greatest journeys of our lives, growing our family from what was a family of five to what is now a family of eight! At the beginning of our first adoption, there was a nervous anticipation about making the “right” decisions and choosing the “right” child for our family. We quickly settled on an international adoption from Bulgaria, but needed to decide if we would register with the country and allow the Ministry of Justice to match us with a child or if we would adopt a Waiting Child. We resolved that if a listing of waiting children was available, we couldn’t personally justify not adopting a child from that waiting list.
Of course, in Bulgaria, adopting a waiting child almost certainly means adopting an older child. In most countries, an older child is over five years old. The decision to adopt an older child was at first intimidating; we heard and read about the importance of maintaining birth order, the trauma older children experience as compared to infants, and the difficulty older children have in bonding with their new families.
During our first adoption, we decided to adopt not one, but two children who were not siblings and were 10 and 6 at the time. We found Viktorya first, and then fell in love with Denny’s picture several months into our adoption process.
Even before traveling to meet our children, Scott and I realized that our adoption would be completed in a little over a year, as compared to other families who could wait upwards of 3-5 years to be matched to a younger child. An additional benefit of that was for my young children at home, aged 8, 6, and 2, for whom the adoption process was mostly an abstract concept. The wait is terribly long for children preparing to welcome new siblings home. Shortening the process helped them remain hopeful and excited that their siblings would come home.
Scott and I spent a week in Bulgaria with our children. Their personalities were evident from the first moment! Viktorya took us for walks in her village and to a playground close to the orphanage. At ten years old, she was a spunky girl who wanted her new Mama and Papa to swing with her every afternoon. She taught us a card game she invented called “I Win.” Not surprisingly, she won every round. She wanted her picture taken with us and then to see each picture. We took her to a photo shop toward the end of the week to print some of the photos to keep. Each day, we felt more resolved in our decision to adopt an older child, especially since the interactions of the week were so rich. Leaving her at the end of the week was one of the most heartbreaking parts of the adoption process.
Denny, who, despite being six years old, was much more like an infant, and wanted only to be held and to hold our hands. His tiny fingers would arch back if we tried to move our hands even for a moment, so much of our days were spent rocking him and encouraging him to play with the toys we had brought with us. On that trip, we visited twice a day for the week, and Denny quickly adapted to our schedule. He was content to head to his nap after the morning visit, but cried each afternoon when we left. To say it crushed our hearts is an understatement! He was – and still is! – a snuggly little guy set on having everyone in our family wrapped around his finger!
Despite the joys of our first trip, my husband and I were nervous about bonding with our children once they were home with us. We knew that early childhood trauma could play a large part in their ability to bond well with our family and, being 10 and 6 years old, they could have experienced considerably more trauma than a younger child. It is important to know that every child available for adoption has experienced some level of trauma and loss and every adopted child will have some effects from trauma. To prepare, we read several books on trauma and the struggles that come as a result, especially The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis and The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Connecting with other parents who were in the adoption process or already home with their children was essential, whether those connections were in person or online. We also worked on shedding our expectations that our kids would love us immediately and transition seamlessly into our family.
The second trip to Bulgaria was an opportunity to learn so much more about our newest children. We discovered more about their personalities and about the issues with which they struggle. We had more opportunities to engage with them through play and exploring the streets and history of their city and we had so much fun learning about the foods they like!
On “Gotcha Day,” our favorite memory of the kids was having a pitcher of water poured out across the porch of Viktorya’s orphanage as a blessing for our family. In Bulgaria, this symbolizes wishing success for new beginnings, along with the saying, “May your success flow like water.”
Still, there were difficult moments, both in country and at home. Following bonding recommendations for a child of any age is challenging. Our first thought wasn’t to hold and rock the ten year old throwing a tantrum, but we did our best to follow this upside-down parenting. Thankfully, we were successful and did connect with each of our children. In truth, those shared experiences that we all remember are some of many our family would never want to be without. We certainly didn’t master this during our time in-country, but we made a head start for real life once we were home.
After our first experience of adopting Viktorya and Denny, our family made the decision to adopt another older child. A decision which was much less intimidating the second time around! Stella was 15 years old. The first videos we saw of her showed a goofy girl whose only goal in life was making everyone laugh!
Our second adoption process was much the same as the first. Because Stella was older, we could spend entire days together on our first trip and go on some fun excursions. One day we explored the fortress in Veliko Tarnovo. The next we spent with several of her friends, playing ping pong and swinging on the swings behind a small shop and restaurant. Our return trip was the most fun trip of the four, with our two weeks spent on a walking tour of Sofia, Bulgaria, exploring antique shops, visiting the open air market, and simply enjoying the freedom of getting to know our teenager. Stella joined our family two and a half years ago. She confirmed that the decision to adopt an older child was such a blessing and has added so much joy to our family.
The Pickett family has shared the journeys of their three adoptions of older children. As with all families our journeys have challenges and gifts – however it is the journey together that makes the memories. If your family has a desire to have more children, take a few minutes to evaluate the benefits and challenges of adopting an older youth. Young babies bring the miracle of new life, while also blessing us with sleepless nights, diapers, colic, and the cry of helplessness. Older children bring an amazingly defined person with their own thoughts and perspectives enriching your life and family, while also bringing the challenge of loss and trauma.
There is a great urgency for us to respond as families to bring older children home. They are closer to adulthood, which is right around the corner, and they need us to enter this phase of life with as much strength and support as possible. There is an urgency to have them experience the security of family and love during their childhood. Each child was once a baby for whom there was only unbridled hope for a life embraced by family, surrounded by love, and a future only limited by their ability to dream.
Adopting an older child, while challenging, provides the opportunity to impact a future that will happen soon and right before your eyes. As families wanting to have children full of dreams and experiences, we need not miss this opportunity. We can evaluate our visions of family and see if we, in fact, have an empty seat for an older youth in our forever home.
The following are some advantages to adopting older youth into your family:
Their personality is already evident. From your initial meeting, you start to become familiar with the uniqueness of your child.
Most of our older youth are equipped to communicate, which is a fantastic experience – though we may not always enjoy the message! However, growing up is messy and we all need the support of a family to help us transition in the journey to adulthood. As an extra gift, you can have a more rapid impact in the lives of these children and have the opportunity to experience young adulthood without the wait!
They come equipped to share what they have learned in life. During my personal experience with short term placements of older youths in our home, we had a delightful 17-year-old young man. He quickly notified me that I needed to expand my cooking expertise. Upon his first stay with us, he inventoried my spice cabinet and advised that each week I needed to purchase a new spice that I did not know how to use so he could teach me a new recipe, which he did each time he returned for respite. It was a joy and privilege to watch this young man demonstrate his ability to be a contributing part of our family. We were blessed as he learned through our home how to equip himself for his, soon to be, independent home.
Older children come rich with experiences that may not only challenge but also enrich our families. These unique, extra gifts may bring complexity; however, the nurturing environment of a loving family may also give rise to talents, skills, and interests fostering an adult that is amazing, successful, full of life, and life changing for other people in your community.
An unexpected bonus of adopting an older youth… it may greatly enhance your ability to successfully utilize technology! The reality is that many of us cannot keep up with the changes and developments in technology; however, a young person ages 12 to 21 is frequently a technology genius. One of my humorous memories is when one of my sons programmed my phone for a silent ring. After a few days of struggling to figure out why it would not ring with the volume on maximum, he had mercy on me and showed me what he had done to my phone. There was admiration and irritation, but mostly love. These experiences bring me smiles and some of my many special memories.
The adoption of an older child provides the opportunity to be a wanted family member. In the journey of life, is there a greater gift? In this case, it is a reciprocating gift. There will be challenging and awesome moments, however it is the loving journey in a committed circle of love that creates a family.
Are you a family ready to welcome an older child home? Your open door is the key that can change the future for a child, enrich your family, and create a legacy for years to come! Regardless of who is in your family, may you have joy in your journey together!
Visit our Waiting Child page today to see the many older children who are in need of a home!